This time last year who would have ever thought that we were sitting on and hatching a major bull market in the grains. Well, it’s here now and the only question for wheat is how high it’ll go.
There are a lot of factors that explain how we got here like being pulled along by very strong corn and soybean markets. The declining wheat acreage has also helped a bunch. For instance, the 2020 Kansas wheat acreage was the smallest in over 100 years. And the carryover is shrinking.
Further, don’t expect much in the way of increased acreage for the 2021 crop. Or for that matter, don’t expect much in the way of the yields of the upcoming crop. Kansas crop conditions are the worst in over 50 years—and are the second worse ever going into dormancy. I’ve already seen some fairly concerning winter kill.
In talking with a number of seed wheat companies and universities along with certified seed wheat dealers, there is a very strong consensus that the 2021 Kansas wheat acreage increased, but only slightly. Daryl Strouts with Kansas Wheat Alliance estimates our planted wheat acreage will show only a 3 to 5% statewide increase. “That would take us up to between 6.9 and 7 million acres of wheat planted in Kansas.”
Others report acreage increases in eastern Kansas and Nebraska. But they don’t grow much there anyway. In the seed industry, there is also speculation that the eastern Colorado acreage will be up somewhat.
But that brings to mind another major factor that could have a profound influence on the wheat market. If you’ve looked at a drought map recently, there is one heck of a lot of red in eastern Colorado. And for much of Kansas, the trend is also dry. Consequently, the season’s dry conditions brought on by La Nina are expected to hurt yields. Here in Kansas where we produce 40% of the nation’s hard red winter wheat, yields are projected at 37 bushels per acre compared to last year’s 40 bushels. Just 33% of Kansas wheat is rated good-to-excellent compared to a 5-year average of 50%.
Too, Russia and other Black Sea wheat producing countries are also dealing with the same drought. That means Russia could impose a 75 to 80 cent/bushel export tax on wheat exports from mid- February into the summer. Oklahoma State University Extension wheat marketing specialist Kim Anderson says because of transportation advantages, the Russian export tax shrinks to an advantage to us of just half that. But that still provides a sizeable lift to our market.
To make matters even more interesting, China could be increasing wheat imports to their highest level in 25 years because of high domestic grain prices. But they likely won’t be buying from Australia because of growing trade frictions between those two countries. That means they’ll have to shop elsewhere—like the US and the Black Sea region.
And then there’s the value of the US dollar—which continues to drop and which continues to make our export commodities look even more attractive pricewise. Our cheapening interest rates have been negative for the dollar. Plus, as COVID vaccines become available worldwide, it increases likelihood that money will flow instead into other countries. Some currency experts are expecting a major drop in the value of the dollar.
Looking again at the Kansas wheat acreage, we’ll probably see somewhat of an increase in the 2021 crop, but will it go up much more for the 2022 crop? If you’re sitting there in Lane or Scott County looking at $6.50 grain sorghum prices and $5.50 wheat prices, are you going to think twice about summer fallowing and then planting to wheat this fall? Or will you just plant that much more milo this spring?
And for those of you who are interested in charts and technical trading, I asked a local technician what he thought. He said since we had walked right on through resistance at $5.60 and then $6 on current month KC futures, there was just not a lot left between here and the wild blue yonder. “$7 wheat is a real distinct possibility.”
But then again, there’s that drought. And as I was once reminded, “There’s reason why wheat goes to $6….you ain’t got any.”
KANSAS—Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the Kansas Leopold Conservation Award recognizes landowners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife resources in their care.
In Kansas the $10,000 award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, American Farmland Trust, Kansas Association of Conservation Districts and the Ranchland Trust of Kansas.
This year’s three finalists are:
Vance and Louise Ehmke of Healy in Lane County. The Ehmkes remain profitable while conserving soil and water, by experimenting with crops like triticale. This cross between wheat and rye is popular as cattle feed and produces enough crop residue to protect fields from soil erosion. With more than 50 playas on their land, the Ehmkes are involved in research, education and outreach on playas’ contribution to recharging the Ogallala aquifer. They also have hundreds of acres for migratory bird and pollinator habitat.
Josh and Gwen Hoy of Cedar Point in Chase County. At Flying W Ranch, the Hoys rotationally graze their beef cattle to create grassland bird habitat. Unique partnerships with conservation groups and neighbors have improved the quality of the local watershed and prevented the development of the Flint Hills. The Hoys have hosted large events on their ranch to promote the ecological value of controlled burns, and the conservation of tallgrass prairie.
Dwane Roth of Manhattan in Riley County. Roth owns Big D Farms in Finney County. He uses cover crops to build soil health and combat wind erosion on sandy soils. As one of Kansas’ first Water Technology Farmers, he is passionate about addressing declining water levels and extending the life of the Ogallala aquifer. His participation involves researching and testing new irrigation strategies and technologies that maintain crop production while reducing water usage.
The Kansas Leopold Conservation Award will be presented at the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts’ 76th Annual Convention in Wichita in November. The award recipient will receive $10,000 and a crystal award.
“As the national sponsor for Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award, American Farmland Trust, celebrates the hard work and dedication of the Kansas award finalists,” said John Piotti, AFT president and CEO. “At AFT we believe that conservation in agriculture requires a focus on the land, the practices and the people and this award recognizes the integral role of all three.”
The first Kansas Leopold Conservation Award recipient was named in 2015. The 2019 recipient was Ted Alexander of Sun City.
This arrow point was recovered from a camp and kill site in Lane County during excavation by Kansas Historical Society Archeologists. The site seems to have had multiple occupations from the Paleoindian period through the Late Ceramic period. The feature this arrow point was recovered in was believed to be associated with an Upper Republican occupation. The side-notched point is possibly made of Alibates flint, a silicified or agatized dolomite from the Canadian River valley in the Texas panhandle.
It doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago when opening day of pheasant hunting season was a pretty big deal. But my, oh my, how times have changed.
Back then every motel room in the county had been booked up for a year in advance. There was not a box of shotgun shells left on a store shelf anywhere. You had to wait 10 to 15 minutes to get gas. And it was really exciting—it was almost like Christmas. The American Legion was packed with people you had never seen before –and every other one had a shell and game vest on along with an orange cap. They were all dressed in brown. And the main topic of the evening was where you had the best luck finding birds. Or how quick did you limit out?
But the main question today is, “Did you see any birds at all?”
We’ve always had ups and downs in pheasant numbers. One year we had numerous severe hail storms and it took a good year or so for them to come back. Severe droughts do the same time to the population. Still, they always came back. But today I guess I’ve been waiting long enough that I’m starting to wonder if something has changed.
According to K-State Extension wildlife specialist Charlie Lee, it’s not my imagination. “In 2018, there were 340,000 birds harvested in Kansas. That’s about half of the long term 63-year average of 600,000. In the top year of 1982, Kansas pheasant hunters bagged 1.1 million birds.”
So what happened? Charlie says a lot of people focus on winter survival and think winter food and cover are the causes. “But I think nesting and brood rearing habitats are more likely the limiting factors. In brief, we don’t need to feed a bird in winter that didn’t get born or survive till fall.”
K-State entomologist Sarah Zukoff agrees that loss of habitat plays a big role in the decline of the pheasant population. But the problem is compounded by the fact that this same loss of habitat is also affecting pollinators and other insects in the same dramatic way. So at the end of the day, if food plants, cover from predators and insect food sources are limited or are eliminated, it greatly affects pheasant numbers.
So what is happening to habitat? Over the past 20 and 30 years, farming has changed….a lot. Randy Rodgers, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, says we started using more herbicides, we intensified crop rotations and we adopted use of higher yielding shorter wheat varieties. We moved away from fallow-wheat rotations while also making sure post harvest weeds were controlled. In brief, we now have untold thousands of acres of beautiful clean stubble on increasingly large acreages with fewer and fewer field borders and uncropped waste areas.
Rodgers says pheasants had been able to nest successfully in green wheat in the spring. Then broadleaf weed growth in the post harvest wheat stubble provided pheasant chicks with an abundant supply of insects which are essential for the first two months of life. The weed canopy also provided protection from the elements and from predators. That protection carried them well into the next spring when they’d move back into the new wheat on nearby fields to start the cycle all over again.
But today we want no weed growth in our drive to conserve moisture for the next crop. And with more moisture, we now grow grain sorghum or corn instead of fallow. Farming is an intensively competitive industry. And from the business point of view, you have no choice but to be as good as you can be. Good for the pocket book. Bad for the wildlife.
Further, Brittany Smith, biologist with Pheasants Forever, says research shows weed-free wheat and sorghum stubble are least preferred nesting sites. “Chem fallow and a general decline in high quality nesting and brood cover have led to a sharp decline in bird numbers. In this highly intensive ag landscape, wetlands tend to be the last remaining refuges for wildlife.”
In the broader picture, loss of habitat is affecting far more than just pheasant and quail numbers, according to Mariah Ehmke, University of Wyoming ag economist. Citing data from Cornell University and Georgetown University, she says nearly a third of all wild birds in the US and Canada have vanished since 1970. Especially hard hit has been the bird populations in the grassland areas including Kansas where more than half of our birds have disappeared. Outside of habitat loss and increasing temperatures, other contributors to the problem include increased use of pesticides as well as feral and domestic cats and collisions with buildings.
Here in Kansas, the red-winged blackbird is in full retreat along with our state bird, the western meadowlark. Since 1970, 70% of our eastern meadowlarks and 60% of our horned larks have vanished. Even robins, starlings and sparrows are in trouble.
Researchers from these universities say birds are indicator species serving as barometers of environmental health. These mass declines in numbers signal the earth’s biological systems are in trouble. Is it a problem? Or is it a crisis?
KSU’s Charlie Lee says whoever controls the habitat can have a big say in our future. And therein lies some good news. Populations of North American ducks and geese have grown by 56% since 1970 largely because hunters became deeply concerned about declines in duck populations that were every bit as severe as what we’re seeing today with other species. As a result laws were written to protect wetlands while conservation management was encouraged. Groups like Ducks Unlimited were especially influential and effective at turning near disaster into today’s booming waterfowl populations.
Wildlife biologist Kevin Luman with KDWPT says the pheasants and quail are still out there and can come back. “But they need habitat for that to happen. And that means we need a lot more outdoor diversity including such things as more wild flowers, pollinators, CRP acreages and cover crops. We also need to do some other things like raise up combine heads when harvesting wheat or use stripper headers.”
Luman points out there are a lot of resources that farmers and landowners can use. “For instance, our wildlife department has a Habitat First cost-share programwhich covers a variety of habitat improvements and developments.”
Outside of the KDWPT, landowners can find other help with Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever, Ducks Unlimited , the Playa Lakes Joint Venture and USDA’s Natural Resource and Conservation Service.
From a farmer/landowner perspective, one of the most useful programs is the CB 38B playa lake CRP. Here on our farm Louise and I have enrolled right at 500 acres of our least profitable and most unproductive land in this program which is now dedicated to wildlife habitat and aquifer recharge. This land includes most of the 80 playa lakes on our farm.
We are also very excited to be working with KDWPT on a whole farm evaluation where we’re looking at literally field on the farm for opportunities to apply practices to enhance the environment and wildlife We’d probably be better off financially if all of our fields were flat Harney silt loam soils. But now when you drive past all of those perfectly flat fields with perfect weed control, you’re starting to wonder if maybe there’s something missing.
The Old West was officially closed in 1890. But it wasn’t until over 50 years later that the last of the wild horses disappeared from Lane County, KS.
Longtime resident Eldon Wancura, who now lives in Dighton, explains that he grew up on a farm and ranch that straddled the Lane-Finney line west of Highway 23. “When I was 3 or 4 years old, there was a wild horse herd in this area which at that time was still largely open range. There were few, if any roads, and only a very few trails and they were not maintained.”
He says the herd size numbered about 30 head. “They were all colors. There were black horses, white horses, paints, reds and browns, gray horses, sorrels and ever color under the sun. Dad’s hired hand June Riley had caught and broken one of the wild ones, a light gray, and he was better than any of the horses we had. Matter of fact, they were all nice looking, quality horses.”
Standing about 14 hands, Wancura said they’d make good saddle horses. “Every year or so Dad and June would saddle up and run the herd into a 2500-acre pasture of ours where we had corrals. We had the only water around. They’d sort off some to sell usually to people who wanted the horses to break and ride. We had a ’36 or ’37 2-ton Chevy truck with stock racks and we could get maybe eight head in a load.”
They didn’t get much for the horses, maybe $5 or $10 a head. But that was OK. It was in the Thirties and the money was good.
Wancura emphasizes that these were wild animals. “They behaved a lot like our deer today. You could get kind of close to them, but they sure kept their eye on you and if you got too close, they were gone. And if you got them in a corner, they could really get mean. They were the meanest animals I’ve ever seen. Up close and around people, they were very skittish.”
Back then the ranches all had horses. “And one of the dominate stallions from the herd kept coming up to a neighbor’s place at night trying to steal his mares and getting them to break out. The neighbor ended up having to shoot him.”
He adds that every now and then their ranch horses would get loose and they’d head right for the wild horse band. “Horses have a very strong herd instinct —and that made it awfully hard to separate our horses from the wild ones.”
Wancura says the herd was made up most likely of horses that had escaped from area ranches or that had been abandoned. But they fit in perfectly on the big grasslands.
But the romantic days of the wild horse herd were doomed by the high wheat prices in the post war years of the 40s. “You could buy a quarter of land for maybe $500. Then you could bust out the grass and plant wheat and sell it for over $3 a bushel. And it didn’t take long after that….for the wild horse herd to just slowly disappear.”
Small grain forages can be a profitable option for producers. They can be planted in the fall and either terminated or grazed out in the early spring, allowing time to plant a summer row crop if soil moisture is adequate.
There are five common small grain options for forage: spring oats, winter wheat, winter barley, winter cereal rye, and winter triticale. Each option has strengths and weaknesses.
Spring oats. Spring oats are usually planted in late February or March in Kansas. However, spring oats can also be planted in August or early September — and if done so, they will produce much more fall forage compared to other small grain forages in the fall before a killing freeze. They will almost never produce grain if planted in August. Spring oats do not need to vernalize before heading. They will develop rapidly in the fall if they have enough moisture and fertility, and may even head out before termination by the first hard freeze in the mid-20 degree F range, but in most years it will not have time to produce viable grain. In very mild winters, however, much of the spring oats planted in the fall might survive the winter in southern Kansas.
Spring oats can be utilized in the fall for either hay or grazing. Spring oats can be ready to graze 6 to 8 weeks after planting with adequate moisture and after a good crown root system has developed. Under good conditions, spring oats can produce up to 1 to 2 tons of forage per acre, but as planting is delayed past early August, expect less tonnage. Spring oats are not very drought-tolerant, and will not establish well or produce much forage if soils are very dry. Rye and barley are more drought-tolerant than spring oats.
Spring oats can also be planted in a mixture with a winter small grain. The spring oat will produce most of the forage in the fall and then most likely winter kill. The winter small grain will overwinter and produce forage in the spring. Winter small grain biomass production might be less than planted alone, but the combination of oat and winter small grain biomass will most likely be higher than winter small grain planted alone. If a mixture is used, plant oats at a 50% seeding rate and winter small grain at 100% seeding rate.
Spring oats should be seeded at the rate of 2 to 3 bushels (64 to 96 pounds) per acre. About 30 to 70 pounds of nitrogen (N) per acre will be adequate depending on forage potential and if no excess N is available in the soil.
Oat pasture can generally carry 500 pounds of beef per acre. Average daily gains range from 1.5 to 2.5 pounds per head per day. Forage quality on actively growing oats is high, with protein content in the range of 20 to 25%.
Oats are fairly susceptible to atrazine, so if producers plan on planting oats this fall after corn or sorghum, there is risk of herbicide carryover that can kill seedlings.
Winter wheat. Wheat is often used for grazing and grain in so-called “dual-purpose” systems (Figure 1). These kinds of systems are usually balanced between getting good forage and good grain yields without maximizing yields on either side. Dual-purpose wheat is typically planted at a higher seeding rate and at least two weeks earlier than wheat planted for grain only, which can increase the risk of a wheat streak mosaic infection. In addition, producers wanting both grazing and grain should use a higher-than-normal seeding rate and increase the N rate by 30 pounds per acre for every 1,000 pounds forage yield.
Figure 1. Cattle grazing on a wheat field. Photo courtesy of Great Plains Grazing.
Producers who need more pasture than normal can plant even earlier, at the likely expense of lower grain yields. Planting very early opens wheat to many risks, such as wheat streak mosaic, barley yellow dwarf, Hessian fly, grasshopper damage, and common root rot. If beef prices are more favorable in the spring, wheat can also be grazed out, foregoing grain yield altogether. Wheat usually produces most of its forage in late fall and early winter, and again in the spring. There are differences among varieties in how much fall forage is produced. Grow an awnless variety if planning on grazing the wheat out. For more information on dual-purpose wheat, please refer to the eUpdate article, “Managing wheat for forage and grain: the dual-purpose system”.
Winter barley. There are now new, improved varieties of winter barley available with better winterhardiness, especially under grazing. Many of the newer varieties also produce more forage than older varieties. Barley produces palatable growth rapidly in the fall under favorable conditions. It is considered superior to other cereals for fall and early winter pasture, but wheat, triticale, and rye provide better late winter and spring grazing. Barley has excellent drought and heat tolerance. Winter barley forage is typically the most palatable of the small grain cereals and feed quality is the highest, although tonnage of barely is usually less then triticale or rye.
Winter rye. Rye establishes fall pasture quickly. It also regrows rapidly in late winter and early spring. However, rye becomes “stemmy” and unpalatable earlier in the spring than other cereals. Since rye is less palatable and higher in fiber than wheat or barley, cattle gains during grazing are normally greater on oat, wheat, triticale, and barley pasture than on rye pasture. Rye is the hardiest of the small grain cereals for overall tolerance to drought, heat, winterkill, and poor soil conditions.
Winter triticale. Triticale, a cross between wheat and rye, possesses the toughness of rye along with the quality of wheat. It can be grazed much harder than wheat and still recover to produce grain. Triticale and rye can be planted about a month earlier than wheat with a decreased risk of wheat streak mosaic (while the triticale might not show symptoms of wheat streak mosaic virus infection, it may vector the mites that might affect a neighboring wheat field). However, there is still risk to grasshopper feeding in the fall, hessian fly, barley yellow dwarf, or root rot. Planting triticale (Figure 2) or rye earlier in the fall increases the amount of fall forage available compared to winter wheat. Triticale has longer effective spring grazing than rye, but not as long as wheat. Depending on the variety, winter triticale will head later than rye so the forage can remain higher in quality later into the spring. Heading date on all winter cereals should be a consideration if spring grazing is the goal.
Figure 2. Cattle grazing on a triticale research field. Photo courtesy of John Holman, K-State Research and Extension.
Small grain pasture management
As planting dates get later in the fall, producers will get more fall forage production from triticale and rye. The later it gets; the more rye becomes the best option for fall forage needs.
When planting a small grain cereal primarily for forage, use a seeding rate about 50-100 percent higher than if the crop were grown for grain. In western Kansas and under dry soils conditions, a seeding rate of 1.5 bu/acre is recommended. In eastern Kansas or under irrigation, a seeding rate near 2 bu/acre is recommended. When planting a small grain cereal for grazing purposes, increase N rates by about 30 to 50 lbs/acre. To determine the actual amount of additional N needed, the following formula can be used:
Additional lbs N/acre = (Number of animals/acre) x (lbs of weight gain/animal) x 0.4
In a graze-out program, all the N may be applied in the fall. However, split applications will reduce the chances of having a problem with nitrate toxicity. In addition, there may be excess N in the fall from failed summer crops, so producers should use caution when putting on N without a profile N soil test.
Under good growing conditions, a well-fertilized small grain dryland pasture can carry about 500 pounds of cattle per acre. Under poor growing conditions, stocking rates should be reduced considerably. Cattle gains of 1.5 to 2.5 or more pounds per acre per day are possible during periods of good pasture production. Under irrigation, with intensive management, much higher stocking rates are attained.
Fall grazing management is critical to the success of small grain pastures. Begin grazing when the plants are well rooted and tillered, usually about 6 to 8 weeks after planting. If the foliage is too tall when the animals are introduced, or if the crop is overgrazed, the plants will be more susceptible to winterkill. Make sure some green leaves remain below the grazing level. The minimum stubble height should be about 3 to 4 inches. Rye has a more upright growth pattern than most wheat varieties, so it should not be grazed as low. Winter barley is more susceptible to winterkill than rye or wheat. However, newer varieties of barley are exhibiting increased winter hardiness.
In terms of overall forage quality of hay, barley is highest, followed by oats, wheat, triticale, and rye. Yet, the forage quality of all small grains in the vegetative stage is more than sufficient for any grazing animal. During the fall and early spring periods of peak production, the crude protein content of small grain pasture is normally about 20-25 percent. Growing cattle require about 12 percent crude protein, thus no protein supplements are necessary.
Small grain pastures can cause bloat. Daily supplementation with poloxalene (Bloat Guard) is highly effective in reducing bloat and is available in many different feeding forms. Feeding high-quality grass hay, silage, and/or an ionophore such as Rumensin or Bovatec can also provide some protection against bloat. Rumensin and Bovatec have also been shown to increase stocker cattle weight gains on wheat pasture.
Cows with high milk production grazing small grain pasture in the spring can experience grass tetany. To prevent this, provide a mineral supplement containing magnesium. Cattle should be started on the mineral two weeks prior to the risk of grass tetany.
By: Romulo Lollato, Wheat and Forages Specialist John Holman, Cropping Systems Agronomist Jaymelynn Farney, Southeast Area Beef Specialist
Some years back when they first started talking about Global Warming I asked the state climatologist, who was in K-State’s physics department, what he thought. He said, “We’ll know for sure….in 100 years.”
Right now, though, after the wettest October and the wettest May in Kansas history, and the slowest planting in US history, maybe instead of Global Warming we should be talking about Global Wettening.
With right at 30 inches of total precip last year, 2018 was the wettest year in all of the 44 years that we’ve been farming here in western Lane County. That trend continues into 2019. Normally to date we would have gotten a little over 6 inches of rain and snow melt, but we’ve already over 10 inches.
And with May and June being the wettest two months of the year, I’m getting nervous about what wheat harvest is going to look like.
This is a lot like the winter of 1992-1993 when we got 65 inches of snow—instead of our normal 18 to 20 inches. If all of the winter-received moisture had been snow instead of some coming as rain, this past winter would have been identical to the 65 inches. And as they say, trends in weather are way more likely to continue than to change, so it’s interesting looking at what happened in the rest of l993.
After the very wet winter, crop conditions started off great…but it kept on raining. Consequently wheat harvest was delayed. North central Kansas got 12 to 17 inches of rain in July, for instance. Statewide, substantial acreages were lost, yield prospects plummeted and quality declined. By August 1, 10% of the Kansas wheat crop was still in the field.
And while it was wet here this past winter, we have no idea as to what it was like north and east of Kansas. A University of Nebraska agronomist stopped here last week and told me of 60 and 90-ton chunks of ice that eastern Nebraska farmers found in their fields—over 5 miles from the rivers. They’re hoping the ice will be melted by the end of summer! Also entire fields covered with 2 to 6 and 8 feet of sand. We got off easy.
So what is going on? Over the past several years, our weather has varied from extremely wet to extremely dry to extremely wet to extremely dry and here we are now being extremely wet. I’ve talked to several K-State professors about the extremes we’re experiencing and they all say this is exactly what was predicted to happen with global climate change.
This winter I heard Jeff Hutton with National Weather Service in Dodge City talk about our recent weather. He said never before have we had more than 3 years in a row of above average conditions for rainfall and summer row crop conditions. “However, we just went through the fifth.”
Those remarks remind me a lot of what I call The Nice Nineties. Back then we had nine years of wetter than normal conditions which resulted in very high corn and sorghum yields. But the longer the trend continued, the more concerned I got. Statisticians and accountants often talk about “gravitating to the means.” What that means is that over time, things average out. And when it came time to average out the nineties, it was ugly. I call those following years The Naughty Aughts. In at least one of those years, the entire sorghum crop was lost. In another year, you harvested only half the acres planted. I still remember farmers swaggering into the coffee shop to brag about their top field—that made 30 bushels per acre!
But the statisticians were right. The nine good years combined with the nine bad years resulted in a perfect long term average. So when are we going to start gravitating?
All this reminds me on another conversation I had years ago with no-till guru Virgil Simpson in Ransom, Kan. As we were driving around looking at his fields during one of those wet years, he said things looked then a lot like they did in 1951, an incredibly wet year with regular flooding. Virgil said we all remember how wet it was. But he says what we all forgot is that after 1951 was done with us, we had to wait another 2 or 3 or 4 years before we saw our next spring rain. In this case, the wet years ushered in a vicious drought. While shorter than the drought of the thirties, the drought of the fifties was incredibly sharp.
And finally, Virgil’s comments about drought brought to mind a conversation with a Texas Panhandle farmer during the drought of the Naughty Aughts. Back then he said he had given up on praying for rain. He said he was now praying for dust…because that prayer worked every time.
My great grandparents homesteaded here in western Kansas back in 1885. I always thought it was a pretty big deal to be a fourth-generation farmer — until the bones of Lane County told me otherwise.
Here on our farm we have a state historical site, 14 LA 311, to be exact. It’s one of the tallest points around, surrounded by 6 to 15 percent slopes. But what makes it a turbocharged Native American campsite is that wrapping around it are a number of playa lakes including a 125-acre lagoon.
The prehistorical Native Americans figured it out pretty quick: As long as there is water in those ponds, we no longer have to hunt. Everything will come to us — including mammoths, camels, prehistoric horses, the modern bison, as well as its gigantic predecessor the longhorn bison, along with deer, elk, turtles and waterfowl you can’t believe.
We’ve found bones from all those species, as well as evidence from 10 to 15 different Native American cultures spread out over thousands of years. We’ve been here four going on five generations, but we weren’t the first by a long shot. The archeologists tell me there were 400 to 500 generations here before us. I’ve got a black-flint Goshen spear, or dart point, in our collection that could be as much as 11,000 years old. I don’t know where that Native American was born, and I don’t know where he died. But for at least part of his life, he called Lane County home.
In that general area, our family and archeology teams have found a good deal of artifacts over the years — for instance, Native American artifacts stretching from Apache all the way back to the ancient tribes of Clovis and Hell Gap. The Clovis hunted mammoths in Lane County at the end of the last Ice Age, but the Hell Gap did not since mammoths had become extinct by the time they arrived. Louise and I found a mammoth tooth on the hill that later was identified as a Columbian mammoth, the largest of the mammoths living 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. At shoulder height, it stood 12 to 15 feet tall and weighed 10,000 to 20,000 pounds. That’s a lot of meat!
Additionally, we’ve found many other fascinating prehistoric markers like huge bison bones, teeth and foot bones from the prehistoric horse, turtle shells and some occasional ivory. I love the clink of ivory shards! We’ve also found a fair amount of burned bone as well as tiny little snail shells. The archeologists who visit the site tell me they are a lot more excited about early horse artifacts than mammoths because every year somewhere in Kansas someone finds a mammoth. Horses are just rare.
By the way, species like the horse and camel originated in the central and southern High Plains, later becoming extinct here but only after escaping likely out the Bering Strait. Poetically, the Spanish brought the horse back to its birth place 400 to 500 years ago. When it became extinct, it was about the size of a small Quarter Horse.
You can find evidence of more recent Native American cultures like Apache at ground level. Same with Comanches, who drove out the Apaches. After the Comanches crossed the Arkansas River heading south for the last time, the last of the Plains tribes moved in: Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapahoe, but they were now using metal points that have mostly rusted away.
But if you’re looking for the really old cultures and the really old bones, you’ve got to dig for them. That’s because about 7,000 years ago our climate changed to a 2,500-year period of severe and long-lasting droughts accompanied by incredible dust storms that brought in our present topsoil on suffocating winds out of the northwest. When they say wind-blown loess, they are not kidding! Anybody who’s ever dug a pit for a grain bin or a trench silo can easily spot the 2- to 3-foot thick layer of dark soil on top of the yellow paleo soil.
When digging a basement for an addition to our house some years back, I spotted a mammoth tooth lying on top of the yellow soil — right where it was supposed to be. It’s always fun walking new terraces or waterways looking for prehistoric bones. Layton found a 10,000-year-old Hell Gap spear point made out of Smoky Hill jasper on such a walk. And let me tell you what, finding artifacts like that is every bit as thrilling as finding a $100 bill blowing down the street!
This past spring while digging some 15-foot deep pits for grain bins, I found what appeared to be some kind of vertebrae, which the Sternberg Museum in Hays initially identified as from a 10-million-year-old rhinoceros or early ancestor of the camel or giraffe. Others at the Sternberg instead say it may be another 10,000-year-old mammoth.
Some years back a neighboring farmer got the urge to use his earth-moving equipment to dig the 75 to 100 feet to the groundwater table. After hearing about his gigantic hole and dirt pile, Louise and I visited the site and instantly found an unearthed mammoth tooth lying on the ground. We took it to town, gave it to him and he said, “Oh, that’s nothing. There are bones all the way down to the bottom.”
We don’t have any T-Rexs or other dinosaurs here in Lane County because most of Kansas was under an inland salt sea during that time frame (60 to 90 million years ago). Instead, you’ll find some of the best shark teeth and mosasaurus hunting in the world in Gove County to the north. When the Rocky Mountains rose up from tectonic activity, the sea was drained and left the prairie grasslands as we know it today.
While we’ve found tons of animal bones, there is always the possibility that human bone is out there, too. According to oral history, a family of black settlers homesteaded on some of our land, but they all died from a measles infection. A witcher from central Kansas volunteered to find the graves. He located all seven family members plus three Native American graves on the historical site a half mile away. Skeptical about witching, I called a physics professor at K-State and asked what he thought about divining. I was surprised when said there might just be something to it.
So what does all this mean? Anytime you’re digging a hole, dig carefully. You never know what you’re going to find. Could be a mammoth tooth, a Native American spear head or knife point or some other link to our past. You just never know. But you’d better be looking!